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Reporting from Baghdad: Why Hasn't There Been a Civil War?

Baghdad, Iraq. Most observers agree that the low intensity struggle now being waged between various Iraqi sectaries has certain earmarks of a civil war. However one chooses to describe this war, a full-blown civil war it is not—at least not yet. In the last fifteen years at least two conflicts merited the term civil war— Bosnia and Rwanda. One distinguishing metric for both was the corpse count. A genuine civil war will usually enlist broad numbers of combatants on all sides, producing casualties that eventually climb into multiple six figures. Thus far the violence in Iraq, while sometimes spectacular (e.g., the destruction of the Al-Askariya mosque), has thus far failed to produce this larger scale violence and death.

The question briefly considered here is why overt civil war has not consumed Iraq.

Aside from having a will to fight, there are other preconditions required for modern civil wars. One of the most important is the presence of outsiders willing to arm, finance, or otherwise encourage the combatants. Even in Rwanda, where Hutu butchery was carried out by low-tech means, outsiders (especially Zaire) played a critical role in supplying even these. “The influx of weapons from foreign sources to the Rwandese government as well as to the RPF [the Tutsi guerilla group] contributed significantly to the civil war during 1990-1994, as well as to the massacres in 1994,” notes the Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. What was true of Rwanda was doubly so in the (somewhat) more even civil war that gripped Bosnia. There, Bosnian Serbs were armed and supported by Serbia; Bosnian Muslims, who at first suffered from the lopsided effects of the Western arms embargo, were eventually supplied by Muslim states and “charities,” thus evening the contest, albeit too late for many civilians.

Looking at Iraq today and after conversations with many Iraqis, I have concluded that the immediate prospects for a full-blown civil war are remote. Before considering outsiders who stand ready to aid various factions in Iraq, one must look at the existing play of Iraqi militia. On a recent trip through Sadr City I observed the most prominent militia group, the Mahdi Army (the largest and best organized militia), discretely lodged in alleyways and doorways, allowing the red-bereted Iraqi Security Forces the most visible, albeit only symbolic, street roles. However, at present—and this is true for most militia in Iraq—the Mahdi Army’s function is primarily defensive—to provide security against Sunni jihadis and militia, and common criminals. Current sectarian militia violence (as opposed to personal vendettas or the work of criminal gangs) seems to be of the “tit-for-tat” variety, in which the leadership bleeds off the anger of more extreme constituents (as well as establishing legitimacy by demonstrating responsiveness) by permitting the minimal amount of revenge killing following each episode of violence. Thus far, the Shia militia are not sufficiently organized, armed or equipped to wage an offensive war against Sunnis, a necessary precondition to full scale civil war.

One reason seems to be a general reluctance by most Iraqis to cross the brink. Iraq has been at war off and on for a quarter century and the war weariness of the population, further squeezed by the sanctions of the 1990s, cannot be overstated. There is another factor (which for now) seems to be equally prominent—the absence of outside sponsors.

This may seem striking given the amount of ink spilled (and real evidence) of the entry of foreign jihadis coming across Syrian and Saudi borders, as well as Iranian supplied small arms, organizers and agent-provocateurs working in Shiite areas.

But homicide bombers, small arms, and foreign agents are insufficient to produce the military conditions required for major hostilities between sectaries. For one thing, unlike Rwanda, where the victims were overwhelmingly civilians, many Iraqi males of all ethnicities have at least some military experience. This means that there is no “low-hanging fruit” of any sectary population readily available for massacre. Moreover, unlike Bosnia there is no current imbalance in the distribution of small arms and explosives. Saddam’s weapons caches were so widely distributed (and have likely been redistributed since) that groups of every stripe have some means to defend themselves. In short, there is something like a stand-off. To paraphrase an old saying of the American West, “God created men, but in Iraq, Mikhail Kalashnikov made them equal.” And the only outside force currently and overtly intervening in Iraq is the American military, which stands as an implicit guarantor of the peace.

As noted, the other major outside player is Iran. As long as Americans are present, the Iranians will be unwilling to provide significant, offensive, military assistance to their Shia co-religionists. Examples of major assistance might include armored vehicles, air assets, and substantial support and logistical trains, all of which would prove more vulnerable to border interdiction than the current reported smuggling of small numbers of shaped IEDs. But the principal reason for Iranian reluctance is the presence of U.S. forces. Even were the U.S. to tolerate importing such weapons (highly unlikely) the risks of spillover—cases where overtly Iranian-armed militia attacked Coalition or ISF forces—would provoke a swift and painful American response. Iranian planners may well remember that even Richard M. Nixon, waging an increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, did not hesitate to “invade” Cambodia for the purpose of interdicting NVA communications. In brief, while the U.S. may or may not choose force to retard the Mullah’s efforts to join the nuclear club, it will surely use overwhelming force to protect its army.

Moreover, whatever Iran and its Shia clients elect to do, they are both aware that the Sunnis are not without friends in the region—friends who, as demonstrated in both 1990s Bosnia and 1980s Afghanistan, proved eager to arm their co-religionists. Iran is certainly noisier than Saudi Arabia, but the latter would be expected to arm their fellow Sunnis in Iraq and given their shared and very porous border, could do so on short order.

In summary, the situation is static, for now. For U.S. policymakers, the longer term issue is the minimum force level required in Iraq to keep the peace. Will a barebones U.S. presence, constituting something of a tripwire, suffice? Or does keeping the peace entail a more substantial presence, which threatens immediate, within-the-hour consequences to any party in breach? Because of the nexus between outsiders and civil wars, I would argue that U.S. force levels in Iraq should be at a level sufficient to continue ISF training (irony of ironies, the ISF may eventually become the most reliable Iraqi institution) as well as constitute a “tripwire” presence in key areas distributed throughout the ethnic Iraq. For the present other U.S. forces should be discretely stationed in such border-states as Turkey, Kuwait, and Jordan. They would remain available to return to the existing in-country bases, but largely out of harm’s way. In short, this proposal is a limited version of Cong. Jack Murtha’s, although motivated by a different set of concerns.

Numbers are tricky and, outside of the Pentagon’s inner counsels, little more than barely educated guesses. But guessing there has been, and when considering the objectives of this essay, Baghdad “buzz” suggests that in one year, U.S. forces in Iraq may range between 60,000 and 80,000, down from the current 140,000.

Whatever one thinks about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, American policy was always about the “neighborhood” as well as the country—in the 1980s, when the U.S. briefly backed Saddam because of concerns about Iran; in 1990, when Bush 41 decided to roll back Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in order to reassure Gulf Arabs that their oil was safe; in 2003, when the overthrow of Iraq’s dictatorship was largely intended to destabilize the region to implant a democratic model side-by-side with existing autocracies, strong men, outright dictatorships and faux democracies like Iran where voters’ choices lie somewhere between abysmally low turnouts or choosing from a list of Mullah-approved parties.

Therefore, to gauge the likelihood of a genuine civil war occurring in Iraq one must look as much to Teheran, Riyadh, and Washington as well as Baghdad. Sectarian hatred may be necessary to fuel a civil war; but militarily speaking, it is not sufficient. And at least for the moment in Iraq, without the deliberate and massive connivance of outsiders, a genuine civil war is not in the offing.

For those who prefer domestic analogies, instead of Fort Sumter, think Kansas-Nebraska, 1854.